by Maggie Smith
Students in public schools who want healthier food options will have to wait a little longer. On Nov. 11, Congress blocked proposals from the USDA to strengthen nutritional guidelines for school meals. The proposals were part of a spending bill introduced to Congress earlier this year, and would have been the first updates to school nutritional guidelines in 15 years.
The proposed changes would have:
• Limited starchy vegetables, such as white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas and potatoes to two servings a week. Currently, many schools serve French fries daily. Senators from potato-growing states such as Maine and Colorado, and groups including the National Potato Council, objected to the restrictions.
• Increased the amount of tomato paste that counts as a vegetable serving from 2 tablespoons to a half cup. Pizza slices with at least 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, under the current guidelines, are considered having a serving of vegetables.
• Limited the amount of sodium in school meals.
• Required half of all grains to come from whole grains.
Opponents of the new guidelines included the American Frozen Food Institute and the Salt Institute. Detractors voiced concerns over burdening schools with extra costs and underestimating the nutritional assets of tomato paste and starchy vegetables.
The new nutritional guidelines proposed by the USDA were based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, and are part of the government's efforts to resolve childhood obesity and other health concerns caused by lack of good nutrition through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
"The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children and our nation," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. According to the federal government, almost a third of children between the ages of 6 to 19 are overweight or obese, and thus at risk for other health conditions.
"It's a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children's health," Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. She compared the changes to efforts under the Reagan administration to credit ketchup as a vegetable.
Some local students are unhappy about pizza and fries remaining on the menu. Teens in the Young Farmer Training Program in Raleigh lamented the lack of healthy, nutritious food in their schools.
"Every day at my school they serve pizza and fries. It's not good food that's available," one boy told the Indy.
"Yeah, definitely not healthy food," a girl added. "I know that. When I was in public school it was so unhealthy. They have some healthy options, like salads in boxes, but nobody would get it. So it's kind of sad."
"Nothing fresh," another boy chimed in.
The group agreed. "Yeah, definitely nothing fresh."